03/22/2004: "The New Disposability"
|AMP|#160;|AMP|#160;Having been conceived in the 1970's, my knowledge of and familiarity with the 1950's can best be represented by Happy Days and Leave It To Beaver. If shown a picture or movie from decades ago, I could likely place it in the correct decade, but that's about the extent of my North American late history knowledge. Nevertheless, there is a faint cultural memory of that era still alive today. One echo of the 1950's that has been reverberating through my head of recent has been disposability: the ultimate convenience, products designed for one-time use and then disposal. The reason this has been on my mind is because I believe we are well into a new era of disposability, but for a much different reason than convenience: economics.
I'm under no delusion that our society has totally escaped the reach and lasting legacy that 1950's disposability has left us. After all, we still have paper lunch bags, plastic sandwich bags, latex dishwashing gloves, and so on and so forth, all disposable but having non-disposable counterparts. One-time use is still quite entrenched, but I believe is going to be - or already has been - overshadowed by a new kind of disposability that is even more insidious than the kind demanded by convenience. This other kind is brought about by the fact that many new products are unserviceable and/or obsolete well within its useful operating lifetime. In easy terms, it's cheaper to throw something out and buy it new than it is to fix it.
The item that got me thinking about this whole line of thought is rather mundane, but represents what I'm talking about extremely well. It is my daughter's electric toothbrush. My daughter is coming up on age 3, and like many kids, brushing her teeth was not necessarily a favourite activity for her. One day while shopping for toddler-safe toothpaste we saw a whole selection of children's electric toothbrushes. Hoping that an electric toothbrush shaped like a princess/ballerina would hold her attention more than a standard toothbrush (Blue's Clues notwithstanding) we purchased one. It turned out to be the best investment in her oral health we've ever made, as she enjoys using it to a degree we could have only hoped to achieve.
The only problem is that it only cost about $8. Normally, an inexpensive toothbrush wouldn't be an issue with me. Even if it operates on AA batteries, I take that to be an operating cost I can deal with. Unfortunately, the one item that is not replaceable on this toothbrush is the head. At least, there is no way to buy replacement heads and easily replace them. I must therefore conclude that when the bristles wear out (as hers already have at this point) one is supposed to simply chuck the whole thing and buy another one. In other words, I should be buying an electric toothbrush to my daughter a few times a year.
Why is that a problem? Well, embodied energy for one. How much plastic is in each of these toothbrush bodies? Not a substantial amount, but our adult electric toothbrush has less, and won't be thrown out for many years to come. Plastic aside, there is also the alkaline batteries that are getting thrown out. Again, my electric toothbrush has an internal rechargeable battery that we haven't had to replace thus far, whereas my daughter is on her 2nd set of alkalines. What I find even more incomprehensible is all the electronics inside as well, not the least of which is the small electric motor. Despite just the bristles and batteries wearing out, this small electric motor is still going strong, but is destined to be tossed into the landfill just because someone didn't want to put a replaceable head on this particular toothbrush. It was designed from the outset to be cheaper to replace than to repair.
That is only the tip of the iceberg of economically disposable products in our society today. Another product that comes to mind fairly quickly is inkjet printers. Anyone that owns such a printer and has needed to replace the ink cartridge will know that they are prohibitively expensive. We had to replace our black ink cartridge last year, and it cost us about $50. Our colour cartridge has long since run out as well, but we don't really feel like ponying up the $50+ or so to replace it quite yet.
Over the Christmas holidays, my wife noticed that the prices of inkjet printers has really fallen, to the point where you can get a fully functional colour inkjet printer for around $99 at most major electronics stores. If you're quick on the uptake, you'll already know where I'm going with this. If it's going to cost you $50 for a new black ink cartridge and even more than that for a new colour one, it makes perfect economic sense simply to buy a new printer that comes with new, full cartridges, right? You can simply heave your old one. You'd pretty much have to landfill the old one, simply because trying to sell it without ink would be a futile task. Yes, the era of the disposable inkjet printer has arrived: cheaper to buy new than to refill.
Electronics seem to make up the bulk of economic disposability, at least so far as I can think of right now. Not far behind inkjet printers are whole computers. With computers still faithfully following Moore's Law, computers quickly become obsolete well within their useful operating lifetime, and have pretty much zero resale value at the end. Unless you're truly a computer nerd, or an obsessive-compulsive overclocker, you're less likely to significantly upgrade your computer than you are to simply start over with a new system. As we're already seeing, computers are creating piles of garbage that is hard to recycle economically or dispose of safely. Although outweighed by computers, cell phones and PDAs follow the exact same lines, in that they become obsolete very quickly and end up becoming worthless paperweights in very short order.
Is there a solution? Well, electric toothbrush manufacturers need to allow head replacements on kids' toothbrushes, for one. Inkjet cartridges are either marked up far too much, or need to have refillability built into them somehow. Computers, cell phones, and other electronics are the real problems, as there is no simple design solution that will stop them from being pumped out by the millions only to be scrapped a couple of years down the road. Recycling systems need to be developed to process this huge amount of waste, but until the end products of this recycling can turn electronics recycling into a sustainable (read: profitable) business, the money to pay for it has to come from somewhere - likely the consumer's pocket.
I'd like to think that I'm doing my part... my 3rd computer that I've ever owned is what I'm using now, and is a 6-year-old used unit, and still works fine. Unfortunately, my 3-year-old PDA is on the fritz, and may end up buried within the year, and I really don't know what to do about that. And I'm going to have to replace my daughter's toothbrush, and soon. Maybe I'll see if she'd like to use mine, with her own replaceable head, instead.